Extending The Enterprise With Field Force Automation
Field force automation isn't limited anymore to just big corporations — everyone's getting into the game. The question is: Are you a player?
Vinny Luciano's dishwasher was broken. Luciano, VP of product management, mobile computing systems for Symbol Technologies (Holtsville, NY), discovered that the problem was a leaky hose. So, he fixed it with the most common replacement part available – duct tape. However, he still called a repairman to come and install the correct hose. Ironically, that's when the problems really started. The repairman arrived late and didn't have the right hose. After making numerous phone calls, he told Luciano to call the main office to make another appointment when the part came in. Four service calls later, the hose was fixed. Obviously, this repairman's company could benefit from wireless field force automation. "If he would have had a PDA (personal digital assistant) that connected wirelessly with his company's enterprise he could have saved a lot of time," Luciano said. "He could have checked his inventory, ordered the part, and scheduled the next appointment for when the part would be available."
Present And Future Applications
Home appliance repair is only one of many field force applications that can benefit from wireless mobile computing. Essentially, this technology is designed to help any company with employees in the field who need to be connected to enterprise systems. For example, utilities repair, computer/copier repair, inventory management, and automatic vehicle locating (AVL) all are common applications for wireless mobile computing. According to Brad Weinert, VP of product management for Novatel (San Diego), the opportunities are quickly expanding for VARs and integrators that provide the WWAN (wireless wide area network) infrastructure for these applications. "The two driving factors behind wireless field force automation are bandwidth and coverage. However, one is no good without the other," he explained. Chris Reitz, executive VP/COO for Melard Technologies (Armonk, NY), is even more succinct. "Coverage is king. When you're out of coverage, you're out of business," Reitz said.
Normally, wireless field force automation involves a person in the field entering data that is sent back to an enterprise system. Coca-Cola leverages this technology without the employee in the field. Instead, the company has equipped thousands of its vending machines to wirelessly transmit inventory, cash, and repair data back to local distributors. The distributors can then dispatch trucks to only the machines that need to be restocked or repaired. Coke uses CDPD (cellular digital packet data) to transmit 1 KB per day at a cost of 8 cents.
Moving To A PDA Form Factor
As bandwidth increases, field force applications traditionally allocated to a rugged laptop/notebook will be run on a PDA. Examples include applications involving detailed schematics/blueprints or CRM (customer relationship management) software. "As wireless speeds continue to increase, the amount of information you can access continues to increase," Reitz said. "The technology is getting closer to the crossover point (speed of communication between wireless and wired systems)." Cost is another advantage of the PDA form factor. Wireless PDAs are often $1,000 to $2,000 less than ruggedized laptops/notebooks. Furthermore, advances in application software have shortened the learning curve for PDA users. This is especially valuable to the repair industry which has frequent employee turnover. "We feel that the PDA will be the primary form factor for field force automation," Weinert said. "Eventually, PDAs will converge with mobile phones and offer voice capabilities."
GPS And GPRS
Wireless field force automation applications can be expanded with the use of GPS (global positioning system) and GPRS (general packet radio services) technologies. The GPS is a "constellation" of 24 well-spaced satellites that orbit the earth. The GPS makes it possible for people with ground receivers to pinpoint their geographic location within 10 to 100 meters. GPRS is a packet-based wireless communication service that promises data rates from 56 Kbps (kilobits per second) up to 114 Kbps. GPRS offers continuous connection to the Internet for mobile phone and computer users. The higher data rates will enable users equipped with handheld devices to take part in video conferences and to interact with multimedia Web sites. "Using GPS and my PDA, I could hail a taxi," Weinert stated. "The taxi dispatch would receive my wireless request and know exactly which taxi to send to me based on my location." Another example involves using these location-based technologies for advertising. For example, as a consumer enters a shopping mall, retailers could automatically send advertising messages (e.g. "50% off all Palm Pilots today at the Electronics Shop") to the consumer's PDA.
The Place For VARs
All of the executives interviewed agree that the real profits for VARs/integrators will come to those who can provide a complete solution. "End users want to be able to flip a switch and have the system work," said Reitz. "So, a total solution has to include the service, the air time, the applications, and the device." However, to sell any new technology, the return on investment (ROI) must be quick and evident to the end user. "The easiest example of ROI for wireless field force automation is the increase in the number of service calls that can be made per day," explained Luciano. "No more calling in to the office or doing paperwork – everything can be done via the wireless PDA." As an example, Luciano cited a home health application. The home health nurse using a wireless PDA can input her arrival time at a particular patient's home. Now, the home health company knows the nurse's location and can change her schedule if needed. The nurse can also do her paperwork from the PDA – again saving time.
The decreased cost of wireless devices and wireless networking enables even the smallest of companies to embrace field force automation. So, the next time Luciano's dishwasher hose breaks, maybe he won't have to wait so long to get a replacement. In the meantime, though, he's still got his trusty duct tape.Questions about this article? E-mail the author at DanS@corrypub.com.